Litmus Test of Indian Secularism!

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by Nilofar Suhrawardy 5 January 2020

Tension grips the country at present. Yet, the nature of people’s protest carries a strong message. It is assertive of the basic Indian spirit still alive among the people. Indians cannot be blamed for this tension. It is the people who form the country, unite the nation and have at present proven that they have the strength to remain committed to secular and democratic values of the nation. The same values, which have been enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

Governments of various parties do not stay in power perpetually. But the people are there at various levels, whose values are not enshrined for a limited time period. They grow and live with the same, passing them on to their successors. Of course, here, some politicians may be excused from not being a part of this bracket. These include the ones whose secular, democratic and other constitutional values are confined to their electoral campaigns and rhetoric while taking oath to their respective offices.  

During this phase, when Indians have sprung forth in several parts of the country, voicing protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and brutalities of Delhi police against students of Jamia Millia Islamia University, this scribe salutes them all. Each one of them has risked her/his life, health and what not by uniting on these politically sensitive issues. They have displayed (and are displaying) that however hard extremist elements may try to polarize Indian community along religious, casteist and other lines, they cannot succeed beyond a point.

Indian secularism and democracy cannot be decided merely by decisions taken by those in power. Ultimately, both are tested by attitude displayed towards the same by Indians. If majority of Indians choose to remain secular, democratic and opposed to communalism targeting minorities, what can a handful of the most powerful achieve? Even the communally-coated measures are least likely to have any impact if the majority chooses not to be moved by them.

“Our country is a golden land…” This is the first line of the first poem I wrote, when less than ten, with my elder brother guiding me. In fact, he phrased the words and I put them down on paper. The poem, using simple words, focused on beauty of this land, its mountains and a lot more. Recently, after my father’s demise, in an effort to bring out a collection of his poetry in Urdu and Hindi, I came across these lines in his first book of poetry, published in mid-1970s. He has referred to understanding three forms of mother, one- who gave him birth, the second- Urdu language and third- his mother-land, “watan”- Hindustan. These points have been expressed just to indicate that Indian-spirit cannot be measured by any means, including documents.

Certainly, communalism is once again testing Indian community’s secularism. This time, people have chosen to loudly voice their protests by assembling together, not just once, but repeatedly to make themselves heard. It may be noted, their protests have received (and are receiving) substantial media coverage. I don’t mind asserting once again, what I have frequently stated earlier in my writings. Indian secularism is too strong to be easily swept away by communal missiles of a limited percentage of country’s population.

On December 6, 1992, when Babri Masjid was demolished, western media presented the news as that of “Hindu” terrorists having indulged in that activity. This scribe watched the live telecast of demolition while studying in United States. My instant reaction was to oppose labeling of Indian Hindu community as terrorists through my writings for local papers and other avenues. How could the entire Hindu community be labeled as terrorists for what a minor percentage had done? In fact, no Indian community, whether Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or of any other religion be blamed as communal, extremist and/or terrorist for what a minor percentage of their population indulge in.

Notwithstanding the opposition and also criticism of this point, this writer has remained firm on this stand. True, attempts have been made periodically to strike at Indian secularism and also democracy. Let us also accept, in this era, it is not possible to convince majority to believe in what a few try to promote. It is impossible. Yes, a few extremist elements are likely to continue hurling communal missiles through various means at minorities. But they don’t represent the majority. They don’t represent India. They don’t represent entire population of the country. And this is being vividly displayed by protests, demonstrations and other means of expression against CAA, NRC as well as police action in Jamia Millia Islamia.

Not too long ago, the present Home Minister, Mr. Amit Shah voiced confidence about remaining in power for 50 years because of his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s 2019 parliamentary victory. He may be around, but there is no guarantee that he’d be still in power, after having crossed a century, age-wise.

Paradoxically, a severe temporal lapse in BJP’s drafting of NRC as well as CAA cannot be missed. The selection of year 1971 for registering citizens in keeping with NRC, which has so far not extended beyond Assam, is quite confusing. The framers of NRC presumed that they will take little time in implementing it beyond Assam. But, how can Indian Standard Time (IST) be ignored, famous for nothing ever being done in time. So, by the time, those born before 1971 are approached, there is no guarantee that those persons would be around. Also, digital technology had not yet assumed the stage then which it has now. Till date, mid-wives still are responsible for birth in rural areas. They played a greater role prior to 1971. Prospects of their being accountable for births they assisted and/or having kept a record of the same are non-existent.  

In addition, even now, only nick name is decided at time of birth. Birth certificates of many, born before seventies, don’t have the same name which was later chosen formally. However confident the present leaders may be about preparing NRC and CAA in fifty years, as per IST, it would be wiser of them to plan ahead. Rather than waste time and money in digging up the past, they should start keeping records from 2020.   

The prevailing tension is a result of concerned authorities’ failure to give greater importance to democratic and secular voice of those displaying their protest against CAA and NRC. Unity being displayed by Indians cannot be taken lightly. It has exposed the weak nature of communal moves targeting Indian secularism. In essence, an Indian’s democratic rights are not confined to only casting votes. Also, Indian secularism cannot be confined to electoral rhetoric. Indians have risen asserting this. But leaders at the center have yet to respond democratically to secular protest of Indians!  

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